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By Cally Guerin

One activity of the DoctoralWriting blog is to report on conferences and events we’ve attended. Of course, this year that has been hugely disrupted: most of us have seen our favourite meetings cancelled and have consequently missed out on the interactions with our research community that are usually a source of inspiration and encouragement. Luckily, online alternatives are appearing to fill that gap.

On 26 August, the first online meeting was convened for IDERN, the International Doctoral Education Research Network (this group had previously planned to meet in Denmark in June 2020). The topic was “Distance supervision and its discontents: what do we need to understand?”, facilitated by Gina Wisker (University of Bath), Swapna Kumar (University of Florida) and me (Australian National University). We had about 60 attendees from 17 different countries around the world.

Any discussion of supervision inevitably touches upon issues around doctoral writing, and this meeting was the same, even though writing wasn’t our specific focus. The sudden shift to online supervision in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that many supervisors have been forced into developing different practices for working on writing with doctoral candidates.

Writing development online

A number of people in the meeting commented on the advantages of supervisors and candidates working on-screen together to edit and revise documents via the screen-sharing function of Zoom or in Google Teams. Each person at their own computer could more easily see exactly what was being done – which words were being manipulated and reasons for vocabulary choices; how the sentence was being reshaped to shift the emphasis or enhance the flow between ideas; and where paragraphs were being moved to foreground the central argument. This allowed for more detailed input and deeper learning than simply seeing the decisions recommended in track changes. The easy recording of online meetings was also reported as an advantage.

Online writing groups have proliferated in 2020. While various forms of writing groups have been steadily increasing in recent years, we have seen lots more Shut Up & Write sessions offered by institutions and also organised at local research group level this year. Opportunities to have company when writing in lockdown or when forced off campus have also taken advantage of the social contact between members – the talk before and after writing sprints is seen as very beneficial.

Online seminars were also mentioned during the meeting. These appear to be experienced as less hierarchical than traditional face-to-face events. Interestingly, it was noted that less confident participants tended to engage in the chat instead of remaining silent as they would under normal conditions. Perhaps these doctoral writers can find their voices through writing rather than speaking in such forums: they have time to think about the words and grammar, time to check the writing before posting to the group. Simply doing more writing – wherever that happens – is also likely to build confidence and better skills over time. More opportunities to write surely equals more opportunities to learn how to write well.

Online supervision practices

The following platforms and software were reported as useful for facilitating online writing supervision:

  • Slack to communicate across different research groups in the same field
  • Google Docs for mind-mapping with sticky notes
  • Padlet for brainstorming and creative thinking
  • MS teams for keeping material in one place and thus reducing lengthy email threads; and also for easy sharing of archived texts and facilitation of asynchronous chat

While talking about issues around wellbeing in remote supervision during the pandemic, Gina Wisker observed that thesis writing has in fact been hugely comforting for some doctoral candidates. Writing is one of the very few things that students (and supervisors) may feel they have control over in 2020; for some, writing can provide structure and purpose, as well as making some progress with their project.

If any of our readers were part of this meeting, I’m keen to hear your impressions of the conversation. There was a lot going on, and it would be great if you can add to this brief summary.